Trip to the United States: Part 1. ‘A People’s Journey’ & Exceeded Expectations

As I walked without hurrying, it dawned on me I hadn’t felt that serene in a long time. Trying to soak up the moment, I breathed deeply, pausing my mind and contemplating my surroundings. Next to me, a squirrel ran across the grass towards a tall leafy tree, ultimately disguising itself with the brownness of the tree’s trunk. Close by, people strolled down the marked path while kids played football in an unmarked field. The weather was certainly inviting to be outdoors. The wind was blowing softly, though the air remained warm even as the evening approached. The sky had very few clouds and it was brushed in blue and pink, with some strokes of purple where those colours met. I had seen many sunsets before, but that was certainly one of the most beautiful ones.

Eventually, I reached a long pool that reflected all the beauty above it. The pool seemed never-ending when you gazed at both of its narrower sides, and it was also oddly inviting: noticing how thirsty I was, I fantasized about dipping into the shiny water and drinking some of it. Of course, I knew better than drinking from a public pool, and I removed that conflicting idea from my mind as soon as it arrived. Still, despite my thirst, and my hurting feet, I was very much enjoying that unplanned moment, rejoicing in the park that surrounded me and the calmness that emanated from it. Now, where was I and how did I get there? Let’s go back to a day before.

On the very early morning of the 17th of September this year, after a night without sleep over fears of oversleeping, I left my homely and comfy dorm to go to the train station nearby. I still remember how tired I didn’t feel yet whilst on that 6AM train. Perhaps I was just too nervous to feel anything else, as I was breaking the “arrive three hours early” airport rule. In the end, my sacrilegious behaviour worked out fine: by the time my transatlantic flight departed, I was in my assigned middle seat trying in vain to fall sleep. What followed were 6-7 hours of closing and opening my eyes at random times. A part of me always knew that would happen when I decided not to sleep the night before because “I could just sleep on the plane”. Sleeping in public is not my thing, particularly not during day time.

Given the above situation, it is no surprise that when I landed in JFK I didn’t feel very well rested. However, I was too excited about setting foot in a new continent to care about my tiredness (yet). I was in America (‘the Americas’, as Anglophone speakers call it). A new world region to write off my list (the only one left is Oceania!). Nonetheless, as I walked to passport control, my excitement gave way to uneasiness. I tried to calm myself by remembering I had done my ESTA online and it was authorised. Still, my history with passport control isn’t a great one, normally being the most frustrating part of my travels. However, that time wasn’t one of the invasive ones and I went through without any difficulties.

After grabbing my first meal in U.S. soil (a hot dog at that), I soon found myself on the AirTrain leaving JFK, and, not much later, on the NYC subway. While on the packed wagon, I stared at its grey walls and metallic seats, so different from London’s moquette-seat tubes. Scanning the place, my first immediate thought was the How I Met Your Mother episode in which Barney gets stuck in the subway after running a marathon. Stifling a laugh, I shook my head and I decided to focus my attention on getting a seat as soon as someone left theirs, efforts which proved unsuccessful. After close to an hour in the subway, most of which I was unsure I was going in the right direction, I arrived at my stop and made my way to the surface. There I was, in Midtown Manhattan. The heart of the Big Apple.

Once the few moments of awe were over, everything felt very normal to me, my usual experience with Western cities and towns. However, I must admit I felt less averse to that urban environment than I normally do. The streets were quite spacious and didn’t feel as crowded and asphyxiating as places like (central) London feel. Nevertheless, at that moment, I didn’t have much time to explore the city since New York wasn’t my actual destination (yet). After buying a U.S. SIM card and setting up my Google Maps, I made my way to a bus stop next to the Hudson River. Not long after, I was on a bus exiting the hectic and lively city.

It was at that moment when I started to really feel the full weight of my accumulated tiredness, though I couldn’t allow myself to sleep. The journey was only four hours and I was carrying my laptop with me on my seat. My eyes remained semi-opened, watching how the afternoon gave way to the evening as the bus rode on the motorway. At some point, lights and buildings became more prominent again and, through a quick Google Maps check, I realised we had arrived at our destination: Washington D.C. After getting off, I made my way through Union Station like a zombie, barely focusing on my surroundings except to look for directions to the metro. Whilst marching hastily, I was momentarily captivated by how elegant and sophisticated the station looked, with its marble floors and spiral stairs.

Now, you might be wondering why, after a sleepless night and a 7-hour flight across the Atlantic, I took a bus to a city four hours away from where I had originally landed, arriving there late on the evening. Well, when I learnt months earlier that I would have to travel to NYC for work, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to visit D.C. too. As far as I knew, it was a chance I might not have again in a long time. Although I have travelled extensively since 2015, it was mainly funded through scholarships/grants. I don’t expect this lifestyle to endure once I stop seeking refuge from real life in my studies and get a 9-to-5 job. That’s why I have taken every travelling opportunity I have had as if it might be the last one.

With the above in mind, I decided to arrive in the U.S. a couple of days before work officially started and do a two-night visit to D.C. And no, it wasn’t simply because I wanted to sightsee the capital of the United States. I had a clear objective and interest in my mind: visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as I’m a museums person. Ever since the NMAAHC opened back in 2016, as I’m highly interested in the history and culture of the Black diaspora across the world, I put it in my “must-visit” list. Now, you might be wondering if all the narrated hassle was worth it just to visit a museum. And to that, I would reply, “Definitely!”.

Let’s return to the evening of the 17th of September. Fortunately for me, my pre-booked hostel was easily reachable by metro from D.C.’s Union Station. Even though it was late in the evening and I was a stranger in that city, I felt oddly comfortable while walking outside during the last stretch of my long journey. The buildings, streets and roads reminded me of one of the main avenues in my hometown. Modern, open and spacious, not overly noisy or busy. It also helped that it wasn’t cold or rainy: it still felt like summer, unlike in the UK, where the summer weather had ended in August. The only issue was how exhausted I felt, though I didn’t have to walk for long. At last, I arrived at my hostel, checked-in, and headed directly to the dormitory I’d share with other women travellers. Following a nice shower, I finally laid on a bed after 40-48 hours without sleep, closing my eyes as soon as my head touched the pillow to get my longed rest.

The next morning was a slow one. I woke up early (well, before 10 am) to have the free breakfast offered by the hostel. It was an open bar service, which I always appreciate. Hungry, I had a scone (called biscuit in the U.S.?) with butter and jam, a sausage sandwich, and a glass of orange juice. Then, I went back to my bed. Although affected by jetlag, I didn’t go back to sleep. I stayed awake, catching up with work emails and tasks, and getting a bit more rest. Around noon, I decided it was time to head out. I left my bed and put on a pre-planned outfit: a summery two-piece Rama Diaw (Senegalese designer) set complemented with a choker and carved circular earrings. I had been wanting to wear the Rama Dia two-piece since I bought in Senegal nearly two years ago, but never found the right occasion (also, till recently, it didn’t really fit me well, it kinda still doesn’t, but whatever!).

Once outside, the sunny and warm streets of D.C. remained as calm and welcoming to me as they had been the previous night. After buying a sandwich for lunch at CVS (like an American version of Boots), I put on Google Maps and walked towards the reason for my D.C. visit. Now and then, I admired the modern-but-classic architecture around me. I was clearly in the fancy “government/international organisation HQ” area of the city, so I didn’t take it as representative of all of D.C. Indeed, my hostel was located rather close to the main sightseeing spots in the city, and I soon found myself enthusiastically gazing at the beautiful and innovative structure which caught my attention in social media three years ago. There it was, the NMAAHC, in all its splendour.

As I entered the magnificent building, I was really pleased that for once I didn’t walk back on my plans due to (dis)comfort or laziness. The museum was modern and polished, with abstract decoration and brown-tone colours. It was busy, but not in an overwhelming way, thanks to its spaciousness. My (first) visit lasted till the NMAAHC closed at 17:30 (I was even rushed outside by the guards). I mainly visited the History Galleries, located downstairs and divided into three sections: ‘Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877’; ‘Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968’; and ‘A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond’. I spent most of my time in this first two sections, as those were the parts of African American history I knew the least about, particularly the transition period from slavery to segregation. I probably over-spent my time there, since I had to flash through the third section before the museum closed (which is why I returned the next morning, to finish it properly and to visit the Cultural Galleries upstairs).

I don’t want to give too much detail about my time in the NMAAHC because I don’t want to spoil it for future visitors. It is also hard to choose my highlights. Every corner, every exhibition was as enlightening and interesting as the previous one. For instance, I appreciated how there were showcases with information about pre-colonial Africa, a lot of which I already knew thanks to Walter Rodney, Twitter and my visit to Senegal. Something noteworthy was learning how the cowries in the bracelet that I was wearing were once used as currency to trade slaves. It was particularly striking because cowries are a symbol of protection in my maternal family’s culture, on top of being valued as fashion accessories. Looking at the cowry display, I touched the cowries in my bracelet with a bit of awkwardness, thinking about how the meaning of an object can change so much according to context, how it can simultaneously be a symbol of oppression and pain, of protection and elegance.

Another memorable moment was entering the second half of the ‘Slavery and Freedom’ section. It was the most acute sensorial experience I have ever had in a museum: coming out of the low-ceiling, dim and narrow-corridor exhibitions on slavery, colonial America, and the American Revolution, and going into a wider and brighter space with a very high ceiling, introduced through an unmissable banner that read, “The Paradox of Liberty”. Yes, that was the section on the Declaration of Independence, and one of the various examples of how well curated the History Galleries’ were, with the aesthetics colouring and contouring the information presented.  Although, the word “paradox” might be an understatement in this case. I have always found interesting that the periods in “world” (really Western) history (i.e. 18th and 19th century) considered milestones for human freedom and equality were business as usual, or the most repressive, for many people in this world (here I’m using “interesting” in the British way, not in the literal sense).

Lastly, and on a more positive note, I liked how the museum also shone light on the various forms of resistance that occurred throughout the three periods of history, from white, Native American and Black workers coming together to fight against exploitation, through the 20th century anti-imperialism and Third World feminisms movements, to modern intersectional activism like Black Lives Matter. It was especially welcomed since, unsurprisingly, the displays were harrowing, gut-wrenching and angering at times, particularly the sections on segregation and the struggle for civil rights. From Black activists being murdered to entire Black neighbourhoods being torn apart, there was a lot of information to digest that was barely digestible, with no little to no explanation other than human cruelty and an oppressive system.

While I can read even the crudest history, visual imagery easily gets to my sensitive self. I’m not a big watcher of slavery, colonialism and segregation films. Visiting the museum did burst part of my “ignorance is bliss” safety bubble, but it was necessary. You can only run from reality for so long, and at the end of the day, this wasn’t about my personal feelings, even if colonialism and slavery is part of my African (and Afro-Cuban) heritage. The galleries presented the reality of American history and the ongoing journey of African Americans as a people. As curated (thus selective) as it might be, the museum wasn’t there to sugar-coat the truth. In addition, if the experience was hard for me, it must be even harder for African American visitors. However, I also wondered if they found enriching and empowering seeing their detailed journey through struggle and how they created something (a lot) out of the worst conditions. That was the real paradox to me: reconciling historical anger and pain with historical hope and strength.

As mentioned, I didn’t have time to finish the History Galleries in one afternoon, never mind the whole museum, so I returned the next morning to re-do the third section in more depth and check other galleries. One of my favourite findings in the NMAAHC outside of the history section was the Contemplative Court, a peaceful and quiet enclosed space with a wide steady stream of water in the middle. The area invited one to sit down and reflect. Its location, next to the History Galleries, was perfect. It offered silence and solitude to handle the immensity and emotional weight of the history that you had just seen and/or were about see. I also had a quick opportunity to go upstairs to the Cultural Galleries, where I found an exhibition on African American music, though this discovery was cut short, as I had to leave to take the bus back to NYC.

I wish had more time to explore the NMAAHC. In fact, I wish I had more time to explore D.C. in general. When the museum closed at 17:30 during my first visit, I decided to go to the Martin Luther King Memorial, which according to Google Maps was close and reachable by foot (it was reachable by foot, but I would argue about the close part). Though not in my original plans, as I wanted to devote my whole visit to the NMAAHC, I enjoyed peacefully walking across the National Mall, the convenient location of many D.C. museums and monuments. Indeed, the pool I described in the opening of this post was the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, located in between the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. I only came across it because I was on the way to the Martin Luther King Memorial, which I found semi-hidden close to the Potomac River, on the edge of the West Potomac National Park (depicted also at the beginning of the post).

By the time I arrived at the memorial, my phone was about to run out of battery. When it did, I freaked out a bit, trying to find a place to charge it, though there were no cafes or restaurants around. Eventually, I decided to let it go and just appreciate the scenery around me. When was the last time I found myself walking without rushing anywhere, away from the confines of my university campus, not in a place just for studying, work or volunteering, nor for frantic overly pre-planned tourism? I couldn’t even remember, which made me realise how long it had been. Besides, not having a phone made me less obsessed about taking photos for Snapchat to capture the moment, and more inclined to just live in it. I did use my camera to take a few scenic photos, but, since it is a Polaroid, I kept it sweet and short.

So, there I was. As I walked without hurrying, it dawned on me I hadn’t felt that serene in a long time. Trying to soak up the moment, I breathed deeply, pausing my mind and contemplating my surroundings. Next to me, a squirrel ran across the grass towards a tall leafy tree, ultimately disguising itself with the brownness of the tree’s trunk. Close by, people strolled down the marked path while kids played football in an unmarked field. The weather was certainly inviting to be outdoors. The wind was blowing softly, though the air remained warm even as the evening approached. The sky had very few clouds and it was brushed in blue and pink, with some strokes of purple where those colours met. I had seen many sunsets before, but that was certainly one of the most beautiful ones.

Eventually, I reached the long pool that reflected all the beauty above it. The pool seemed never-ending when you gazed at both of its narrower sides, and it was also oddly inviting: noticing how thirsty I was, I fantasized about dipping into the shiny water and drinking some of it. Of course, I knew better than drinking from a public pool, and I removed that conflicting idea from my mind as soon as it arrived. Still, despite my thirst, and my hurting feet, I was very much enjoying that unplanned moment, rejoicing in the park that surrounded me and the calmness that emanated from it.

Soon the night and its darkness came, and I made my way to a random bus stop, deciding it was time to find a place to charge my phone and go back to the hostel. Luckily for me, D.C. had free buses with USB charger ports, so it didn’t take long till I found myself reunited with my beloved smartphone and with the right Google Map directions to get back to the hostel. The next morning, I took another route for my second visit to the museum, as I wanted to see the close-by White House. Yes, this wasn’t an ideal moment in history to visit that place (has it ever been?), still, I wanted to see such a renowned place in person. I was a bit surprised by its location, how close it was to other buildings and inside the city itself.  All the pictures I had seen of the White House had always given me the impression that it was in the middle of nowhere, away from the active areas of the capital. In retrospective, I think I got that impression because of how big the White House’s gardens are.

After seeing the iconic U.S. landmark, and towards the end of my second visit to the NMAAHC, my usual sense of hurry and feeling of restlessness returned. I ran (quite literally) back to the hostel for my luggage and then headed hastily to Union Station to take my afternoon bus back to NYC. I had already stayed in D.C. longer than planned (I initially got my return ticket for the morning, I changed it the night before) and I didn’t want to arrive in NYC too late.

Overall, my short trip to D.C. not only fulfilled its main purpose but exceeded my expectations. The NMAAHC was my highlight and I hope I can go back again one day to see the upper galleries properly. It also strengthened my interest to visit other places in the U.S. like New Orleans, very rich in African American history and culture too. Nevertheless, I unexpectedly ended up liking D.C. a lot too. I hope to travel back there one day, to visit other museums in the National Mall (like the National Museum of the American Indian) and to walk again along the Reflection Pool during a nice summer sunset.

P.S. Check the “Part 2. history /ˈhɪst(ə)ri/” and “Part 3. Washington D.C.” for more pictures of the NMAAHC and my D.C. trip.

 

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